My Chemical Imbalance

January 10, 2022 / Eliza Pillsbury

Everyone’s experience on prescription medication is different. Please talk to your doctor or even just a friend if you’re struggling with mental health.

I can rattle them off: Rexulti worked for 15 months then plateaued. Lexapro didn’t work at all. Buspirone worked for two years then began to make my anxiety even worse.

Prozac made me angry. Wellbutrin made me gain 25 pounds.

Xanax felt great, but I was always paranoid about the potential to abuse it.

I’m currently taking paroxetine and desvenlafaxine for anxiety and depression. (Don’t worry, it’s not a HIPAA violation if I self-disclose; this is just oversharing.) I love the way these words roll off of my tongue, like shibboleths. I used to stumble over that “sv” consonant cluster, but now I can say it with a knowing nonchalance. Then there’s Synthroid, which is a brand name, not the generic version that my mom takes. Thyroid problems and anxiety disorders run in the family. I’ll probably be taking some combination of these drugs for the rest of my life.

Zoloft is one of the only mainstream SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, for those who are not mentally ill!) that I can’t claim to have sampled. Then there are the more obscure medicines, like Lamictal or lithium. I haven’t taken those either. I’m left instead with only a morbid curiosity.

The pair of Blisovi (birth control) and Myorisan (acne medication) is relatively new for me, however. Neither name sounds very appealing. Blisovi hides the word “bliss,” but the first syllable is followed by two distasteful glottal syllables. I’ve forgotten this name in at least two doctors' offices, so I end up texting my friend who moved to a different city after her graduation but still takes the same medicine. Many friendships of mine have been strengthened by exchanging medical histories.

There is nothing glamorous about being dependent on drugs, even if they’re legally and safely prescribed.

It’s unsettling to know that I could meet the world in a totally different way if I don’t take my medicine. Something outside of myself has more power than I might even know over who I will be on any given day.

Sometimes, I forget to take my medicine and don’t realize it until hours later, when all the colors become too bright and I don’t feel grounded in my body. But bodies are weird, and sometimes I’ll feel woozy for no reason at all. I’ll have a moment of paranoid panic, trying to remember the exact moment and motion with which I took my medicine that morning, or weighing whether it’s too late to take another dose, just in case.

Even while writing this story, I learned more about the quirks of my neurochemistry. I lived at home during most of the pandemic, and I adored the slower pace, independence, and time with my family. I was terrified of coming back to campus, and soon, it felt like my fears had been confirmed. A growing feeling of dissatisfaction and a hopelessness bordering on lethargy characterized the first few months of my first semester back.

There was one week, however, when things felt different. I found myself literally skipping home from the bus stop. At a concert with friends, I felt like I was flying high above my body, looking down at the flashing lights with euphoric, bewildered contentment.

The next week, I realized I had been on the placebo pills for my hormonal birth control. I’d heard horror stories about the pill affecting people’s moods, and I approached my gynecologist with what I thought to be a coherent narrative about my mental health. I thought I was self-aware enough to have perceived that this medicine was no longer serving me.

She suggested that actually, it was more likely that my acne medication was exacerbating my feelings of depression and anxiety and contributing to a lack of motivation. I realized I hadn’t been consistent with taking that medication during my good week either, and that I’d doubled my dosage of Myorisan right about when I left for college.

Before figuring any of this out, I’d come to the premature conclusion that I just wasn’t meant to enjoy college. I was trying to process what it would mean for me to seek moments of happiness in an environment with which I felt incompatible. While I still think there might be some truth to this for me, the whole truth is not that I’m constitutionally unfit for college, nor that I had sunk into a depressive episode after leaving home.

I know all this now. I also know that I am not weak for relying on medicine. Asking for help is a show of strength. I know this, but I have a hard time making myself really believe it.

I don’t trust my body to care for itself. This is a rational position for me to hold. But even after years of productive drug therapy, I still feel ashamed sometimes. Whenever I travel or stay at a friend’s house, I try inconspicuously to quiet the rattling of pills in my bag. There’s still such a stigma around mental health and medication. Besides, the aesthetic of an all-natural woman is seductive: She is in touch with her truest self and freed from inhibitions to achieve a higher level of — what? Femininity? Morality?

Despite their very real benefits for many, the terms “holistic” or “natural” medicine are too often co-opted to push the latest fad diet, one that demonizes all processed foods or another that advocates quitting caffeine cold turkey (thanks, but no thanks). But truly holistic health does not require anyone to disregard scientifically proven methods of care.

I don’t want to hear any more of this “Van Gogh wasn’t medicated when he created his masterpieces” bullshit. How many more masterpieces could he have created if he’d had access to potentially life-saving psychiatric care? I’m grateful for my medicine. I’m proud of it; I’m even disclosing my medical records in a magazine article.

I am a whole person. I walk labyrinths. I pray and go to therapy. (I don’t work out, though I know I should.) I depend on iced oat milk lattes to get me through each silly little day.

And I take the drugs that my doctors give me. ■

by: Eliza Pillsbury

Jaycee Jamison

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